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The WikiLeaks Controversy

28 November 2010

The WikiLeaks Controversy

By Gwynne Dyer

The US government, faced with the publication on the internet of a quarter-million cables sent by US embassies in recent years, has responded just as it did when WikiLeaks posted similar troves of secret messages about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the web earlier this year. It has solemnly warned that WikiLeaks is endangering the lives of American diplomats, soldiers and spooks.

“Such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the US for assistance in promoting democracy and open government,” the White House declared. “By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals.”

Hmm. Might there be some exaggeration here? Does the US ambassador to Moscow really face assassination for reporting, in late 2008, that President Dmitri Medvedev “plays Robin to (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin’s Batman”?

Will United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon really order a hit on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now that he knows she ordered US diplomats to collect the details of confidential networks used for official communication by senior UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys. (She also wanted their frequent flyer numbers, credit card details, fingerprints, iris scans, and DNA biometrics.)

Will French President Nicholas Sarkozy have the US ambassador murdered for saying that he has a “thin-skinned and authoritarian personal style”? Will Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi put out a kill order on Elizabeth Dibble, US charge d’affaires in Rome, for saying that he is “feckless, vain, and ineffective”?

And by the way, the leaked documents don’t only deal with “people around the world who come to the US for assistance in promoting democracy and open government,” as the White House pompously put it. They also reveal who came to the US for assistance in SUPPRESSING democracy and open government – and, quite frequently, got it.

The official outrage is as synthetic as it is predictable, and what drives it is not fear for the lives of American diplomats and spies but concern for their careers. But how did a big, grown-up government like that of the United States blunder into the error of making all this “secret” material so easily available?

It made the elementary mistake of thinking that electronic communications could really be kept secret, even when widely disseminated, if you just surround them with a sufficiently impressive clutter of passwords, security clearances and encryption. Any historian could have told them they were wrong. If it’s written down, then it will come out sooner or later. In this case, it was sooner.

Before I realised that journalists have more fun and make (a little) more money, I trained as an historian and did research in the archives of various foreign ministries. I always pitied my colleagues working in earlier periods of history, when most things were decided face to face. By contrast, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period that I was studying, governments had got so big that everything was written down.

Documents would pass from one desk to another, and each recipient would note his comments in the margin and initial them. They had to do it that way, writing down what they really thought, because there were no telephones. It was a system that allowed subsequent historians to trace the way decisions actually got made – about thirty to fifty years later, when the files were finally opened to researchers.

Then, in the decade or so before the First World War, all those officials got telephones, and that system died. The officials had their confidential discussions on the phone, real motives never got written down, and the documents usually contained only a sanitised version of the policy debate. It got a lot harder to do good history.

What the US Defence Department thought it had invented in the Siprnet ( Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) was a way to distribute confidential information widely, like in the good old days, but without jeopardising secrecy. Except that it wasn’t secure, as the massive dump of cables on WikiLeaks demonstrates.

All you needed to access the Siprnet was a “Secret” security clearance. When the number of people with a “Secret” clearance or above was last counted by the General Accounting Office in 1993, there were more than three million of them. There are probably twice as many today. And all it takes is one of them to send the data to WikiLeaks, and the whole system is compromised.

The US government will persist in trying to get Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, jailed on one charge or another, but he is just the tip of the iceberg. The more widely you distribute information, the more likely it is to leak. If you disseminate it very widely by electronic means, it’s almost certain to leak.

So distribution lists will get a lot shorter in the US and elsewhere. This may result in some minor degradation of the decision-making process, but not much, really. The most striking thing about those quarter-million messages is that they contain almost no real surprises. You’d be just as well informed about the world if you read a couple of good newspapers every day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 14. (“Will French…got it”; and “The US…leak”)

Who Is Human?

21 May 2003

Who Is Human?

By Gwynne Dyer

Once upon a time it was acceptable to eat people who didn’t belong to the tribe. Human beings have come a long way since then, and we may yet go further. We might even make killing some non-humans a crime.

The idea that the great apes, at least, ought to have the protection of the same laws that forbid the murder and torture of human beings has been part of the public debate for a quarter-century, since philosopher Peter Singer wrote his ground-breaking book ‘Animal Liberation’ in 1975. “We now have sufficient information about the capacities of the great apes to make it clear that the moral boundary we draw between us and them is indefensible,” he said when he co-founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, and a growing number of people would agree. But opinions would shift even faster if biologists were to re-classify chimpanzees as humans.

That, essentially, is what Professor Morris Goodman is up to. In a paper published this week in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, Goodman, a geneticist at the Wayne State University school of medicine in Detroit, proposes that chimpanzees and their close relatives bonobos (‘dwarf chimps’) be redefined as members of the genus Homo. They are now treated as a separate genus — Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus — while human beings are seen as the sole surviving species of the genus Homo. Under Goodman’s classification, we would all be members of the same genus: Homo sapiens, Homo troglodytes, and Homo paniscus.

It has long been known that human beings and chimps have about 98 percent common genes, but Goodman’s team concentrated on the crucial ‘coding’ regions of 97 genes that are shared by humans, chimps, gorillas, orangutans, old-world monkeys and mice. All the great apes came out even closer to human beings than previously thought: for humans and chimps, the match was 99.4 percent. So Goodman argues that all the great apes including humans should be seen as members of the same family, Hominidae — and people and chimps as members of the same genus, Homo.

Goodman’s team got different results because they ignored the non-coding DNA that predominates in the genome of every species, but does not actually influence development. Since ‘junk DNA’ has no consequences in the real world, any random change in it is preserved and mutations accumulate fast. ‘Coding’ DNA controls real biological processes, and since most random mutations have negative consequences for the individual involved they are quickly eliminated by natural selection: he dies, probably leaving no offspring. Coding’ DNA changes slowly — and that is where Goodman found the even closer match between humans and chimps.

Why would this matter to anyone but biologists? Because bringing people and the great apes closer together by calling us all Hominidae, and putting people and chimps in the same tight little family Homo, is also a way of emphasising how much humans and chimps have in common emotionally, socially and intellectually. What Goodman is really after is a change in the legal status of chimps: “The finding would support those who want to extend legal controls to stop the abuse of chimps.” Abuse is a pretty mild word, in the circumstances.

The great apes now face what would, if they were truly seen as human, be called a genocide. Wars, forest clearance for logging and farming, and hunting of ‘bushmeat’ for food are decimating the chimpanzees and gorillas of Central Africa, their main habitat. There are probably only about 250,000 great apes of all species left in the wild, and chimps and gorillas are nearing extinction in the Congo and Gabon: a recent search for a long-studied gorilla band of 140 named individuals found only seven left alive.

So a change in their legal status would certainly help, and bit by bit it is coming. Britain was the first to ban the use of chimps in research, and New Zealand and Sweden have followed (though some 1,700 chimps are still held in captivity for research purposes in the United States). More controversially, the Great Ape Project gave birth a couple of years ago to the Great Ape Legal Project, which campaigns for laws that would recognise the ‘humanhood’ of the great apes based not just on their close genetic relationship with us, but also on their intelligence, strong emotions, self-awareness, and limited language ability.

If you deny the great apes ‘human rights’, the radicals argue, then logically you should also deny them to human beings with severe mental handicaps. Morris Goodman is no campaigning radical, but his motive for reclassifying the great apes as human is not only scientific. He clearly feels that it would help to bridge the psychological gulf that must be crossed before we grant them human legal status — a gulf at least as wide as the ones we crossed when we decided that slavery was wrong, or that even females should be allowed to vote.

Granting ‘human rights’ to the great apes would be part of the same process by which we have steadily widened the scope of our moral imagination from the tight circle of the hunter-gatherer band until it (sometimes) embraces the whole of the human race. “Extending the circle of compassion, first of all to our closest living relatives,” as anthropologist Jane Goodall puts it, is the natural next step, and it will probably come to pass eventually. Though perhaps not in time to do the apes much good.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Goodman’s…chimps”;and “If…vote”)